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Absentee voters grow frustrated

Many out of state say they have yet to see their ballots

By Todd Hartman, Gabrielle Crist And Peggy Lowe, Rocky Mountain News
October 30, 2004

Out-of-state voters and parents of far-flung college students were growing desperate Friday as Denver absentee ballots still hadn't arrived, fueling concern that some wouldn't be able to vote in Tuesday's presidential election.

Two high-powered parents - Denver School Board member Elaine Berman and former City Councilwoman Mary DeGroot - were among those frustrated that their college-age children could be shut out of the election. Another politician, City Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez, was intervening on behalf of another family. 
By Friday afternoon, Rodriguez had enlisted a lawyer and sought help from the Department of Justice, while Berman made a personal visit to the Denver Election Commission to try and ensure that their children's votes would count. DeGroot had just spent $28 on overnight mailing fees in hopes her daughter Sarah's ballot would arrive in time.

"She just received it this morning (at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania). She has voted, and put it back in the mail and is praying it is back by Tuesday," DeGroot said.DeGroot said her daughter was in touch with several friends from Denver, now scattered at colleges around the country, who were facing the same problem.

"Her friends are very frustrated," DeGroot said. "They registered, they requested the absentee ballot. I don't know what happened on the Denver Election Commission."

Commission spokesman Alan McBeth said Friday he had no new information on why people didn't get their ballots.

"There were 13,000 (absentee) ballots mailed a week and a half ago. Why these people haven't gotten them, I don't know."

McBeth acknowledged that for those who had not received their absentee ballots, the process at this point is complicated: arrange for someone to come down to the Denver Election Commission with a prepaid Federal Express envelope and have election officials a ballot and mail it - then hope the ballot makes it back to them by Tuesday.

"This is not a great solution, but it's all I've got," McBeth said.

Denver Election Commissioner Susan Rogers said officials sent as many as 100 replacement absentee ballots by express mail this week. She argues that although it's a crisis for individual voters, the number of people affected seems relatively small.

Some stretch the limit

Some of those who called and said they never received a ballot actually never requested one, Rogers said.

"Sometimes people wait until the last minute and then get mad at us," Rogers said.

Berman said her two sons, Seth in Los Angeles and Ben in Chicago, requested absentee ballots almost three weeks ago and never received them. Officials at the Denver Election Commission told her that the ballots were processed Oct. 19 and 20, but as of Thursday, neither child had received their ballot.

In an e-mail to Denver City Attorney Cole Finnegan and chief of staff Michael Bennet, Berman's frustration came through.

"First, what should my sons do? Second, what are you planning on doing to ensure all votes are received and counted?"

Friday afternoon, Berman sent the ballots overnight mail, on a wing and prayer that they'd arrive back in Denver on time.

Meanwhile, Denver attorney Denise Maes was running into a brick wall. She was working with Rodriguez on behalf of Denver resident Ledy Garcia Eckstein, who is trying to get her son, Cody, an absentee ballot in New York. Maes said the election commission told her that Cody Eckstein faxed in his request for an absentee ballot too late. Only problem is, Maes said, the election commission won't say how late the request went beyond the deadline of Oct. 26.

"I'm trying to discern if that is the case," Maes said. "If you have something that tells me what time he sent it, then tell me. If we're talking five or 10 minutes, I'll be livid."

Mark Eddy, spokesman for FairVoteColorado.org, an organization set up to assist voters with questions and concerns about voting in Colorado, said his organization is getting "flooded" with calls and has had some 35,000 hits on its Web site.

Fearing some people may never get their absentee ballots in time to mail them back, Eddy said his organization was contacting lawyers, who were researching the legality of allowing people to fax their ballots in order to meet the 7 p.m. deadline Tuesday.

Worries about absentee ballot that never arrive are particularly acute in Denver, and to a lesser extent in Arapahoe County, he said.Arapahoe County used the same California printing company that Denver used for the 13,000 late ballots. Problems at the printing company, and a legal question involving Ralph Nader's candidacy, delayed the Denver ballots.

Arapahoe County Clerk Nancy Doty said the latest tally shows the county has replaced 1,281 absentee ballots that apparently never arrived, compared with 56,000 absentee ballots that have been returned without problem.

"We're handling (the complaints about ballots failing to arrive) as I'm made aware of them," Doty said.

She reminded voters that, as a last resort, if they don't receive a requested absentee ballot they can still show up at the polls Nov. 2 and cast a provisional ballot, and their vote will count.

The Colorado Republican Party said Friday it's asking the Denver district attorney to investigate reports that county jail inmates registered to vote and might have already voted, Republican spokesman Peter DeMarco said.

He said the party's two objectives are to ensure that all eligible voters go to the polls and to have all their votes counted, but the party will step in to "uphold the fairness of the process."

Voting group offers help

Voters who run into problems on Election Day are encouraged to contact FairVoteColorado.org at 1-888-839-4301. The organization will have more than 30 election law attorneys and experts available to help people with questions or concerns.

"Our goal is to solve any problems before someone leaves without voting," said Mark Eddy, spokesman for FairVoteColorado.org. "Our attorneys will be able to reach decision makers in each county clerk's office as well as the secretary of state, so if there is a problem at a particular polling place we can get it straightened out quickly."

Voters can also visit the organization's Web site of the same name to get answers to frequently asked questions.

The organization, which calls itself nonpartisan, gets its support from the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, Colorado Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, among others.

Canvassers on the street

More than 100 canvassers wearing "Election Protection" T-shirts will hit the streets starting today, with a goal of "ensuring that every voter who wants to vote can cast a ballot that counts on Election Day."

Free information and assistance in English and Spanish is available from the group by calling 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

Organizations associated with the group include the Colorado chapter of 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women, the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, the Colorado Progressive Coalition, LARASA and People for the American Way Foundation.

Poll problems?

• If you experience problems at the polls, the Rocky Mountain News would like to hear about them. Call us at 303-892-5201.

• A nonprofit group, FairVoteColorado.org, also would like to hear from you. Call 1-888-839-4301, or go on the group's Web site and click on "Voter Complaints."

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